1927: Early Autumn by Louis Bromfield

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Plot Summary:

Bromfield takes a close look at the Pentlands- a fictional rich family in New England- exposing the hypocrisy and ignorance behind their luxurious facade. Bromfield’s eloquence when describing both his characters and their surroundings is breathtaking, and his accuracy in describing the characters’ complicated emotions makes it apparent that he knows human nature very well. A fascinating study on the struggle of one woman to escape the stifling influence of her husband and in-laws.

My Thoughts:

First of all, I wasn’t crazy about Louis Bromfield’s writing. What annoyed me the most about it was his tendency to use an ambiguous pronoun and follow with the proper name it referred to in parentheticals immediately after. He probably only did this three or four times, but it was incredibly irritating to me and stuck out every time it happened. It felt lazy, because he could have just as easily used the proper noun without ever dragging the pronoun in to muddy things up. The other thing about his writing that frustrated me was its utter lack of subtlety, which I’ll get to shortly.

So here’s what I liked: the book was incredibly well structured, and the characters were all well constructed, with real struggles and failings and motivations. The characters were what struck me first. Olivia, who was a stranger to the Durham area when she married into the Pentland family years ago, now has a grown daughter, Sybil, and an ill and dying son, Jack. She’s married to Anson Pentland, who’s more interested in writing the family history of the Pentlands than his wife, and hasn’t so much as come into her room in 15 years. The patriarch, John Pentland, the Puritan in an age that has otherwise lost it’s belief, and his sister, Aunt Cassie, with a dead husband and no children of her own, who derives her only pleasure in life from gossip and her family manipulations. And thrown into the mix, the impetus for the conflict, is Sabine Callendar, the niece of John Pentland, who is divorced and the black sheep of the family, whose experiences growing up with the Pentland family have left her jaded and wanting to see the Pentland family get their comeuppance.

All the characters have their varied histories and they all want different things out of life. The conflict that occurs within the novel exists entirely when those motivations and desires disagree with each other. There is no external conflict apart from what the characters bring into their personal lives. Bromfield doesn’t need any gimmicks or plot holes to push the plot forward, and the intricacies of those dueling emotions and inspirations weave through the structure of the novel seamlessly. The most perfect aspect of the novel’s structure falls at the midpoint of the novel. The entire story turns on the death of Olivia’s son Jack, which she knows has been coming since the day he was born sickly. Aunt Cassie comes out of her shell, and instead of playing the victim anymore, she begins to actively get her fingers into every piece of family business she can ferret out. Olivia and Sabine both step up their plans to get what they want out of life. And John Pentland, who has just seen the last of the Pentlands die, begins making his own plans for passing on the family when he is gone.

It is at this point that the subtlety begins to go out the window. Instead of showing how Sabine and Aunt Cassie are two side of the same person, both trying to manipulate the Pentland family and guide it into a thing of their own making, Bromfield says explicitly on five or six occasions, including from Sabine’s own mouth, that they are the essentially the same person. When Bromfield wants to make a point, he repeats whole sentences over and over again, not over the whole course of the book, but just a paragraph or two apart. He elucidates and spells out every thought, emotion, and action for each of the characters, leaving nothing between the lines for the reader to infer. And on the few occasions he does leave something unexplained, it only takes a few pages for him to come back and clarify to the point of frustration. I found myself trying to invent things between the lines. There is a repeated story about two characters from the family history who drowned a hundred years before, and I found myself wondering if they didn’t drown at all, or just ran away, and made it look like their boat sank in a storm, even though there is absolutely no basis for that, just because I wanted a little more freedom to read the book myself.

I think all in all, Early Autumn was a bit of a wash for me. The characters were incredibly real and well written, and the structure of the novel was fantastic, but there were too many stylistic and grammatical choices that didn’t work for me, and tended to take me out of the illusion of being in the story, and remind me that I was reading a book instead of participating in a story. It has it’s moments, but I have a hard time believing this was the best novel the jury was faced with while making the 1927 novel decision.

Favorite passage:

It seemed that life grew more and more tenuous and complicated, more blurred and indistinct, until at times it became simply a morass of minute problems in which she found herself mired and unable to act. No one spoke directly anymore. It was like living in a world of shadows. And this old man, her father-in-law, was the greatest puzzle of all, because it was impossible ever to know how much he chose to ignore in the belief that by denying its existence it would cease to exist.

Why you should read it:

It’s not outright bad, and I wouldn’t actively discourage anyone from reading the book, like I would for The Able McLaughlins, but I also don’t see myself ever going out of my way to recommend this book to anyone, either.

Currently reading: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

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